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Homestead Reflections November 2018

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts November Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

A rainy day, another in a long succession from the wettest summer I can remember. We did have a few weeks of hot dry days when I began to wonder whether we were at the beginning of a drought.   It surely has been a crazy summer.  I thought I’d talk about some of the successes and challenges of this year’s growing season.


Of the 23 permanent growing beds, 9 were planted in cover crops (CC) for the entire growing season.  All of the rest either had early CC’s planted in April and then managed for future vegetable crops or had CC’s planted after early vegetables were removed.  I think it was the first time I was able to use CC’s in every bed at least at one point in the season. 

As I’ve explained in previous articles, having soil covered almost continuously is essential for soil and microbial health.  We didn’t experience any erosion or flooding in our garden, though other areas of the homestead, like paths, were gullied and/or flooded.  For the most part, during the dry spell, the garden soil continued to be moist and friable. 

We also experienced little or no unwanted weed pressure.  I do allow some areas to self-seed lambs quarters, dandelion, and pigweed, because we like to eat them. Also garden sorrel gets a pass as a useful CC in certain areas.  I also try to have some Pennsylvania smartweed around as I’ve noticed that Japanese beetles prefer it to my vegetable crops. 

Mixing outdated vegetable seeds into the CC cocktail worked well.  Pole beans grew up the tall sorghum plants while, kale and tomatoes held their own while mixed in with the oats, peas, buckwheat and other CC’s.


This year I experimented with a few changes in how I worked with my CC’s and veggies that weren’t as successful as I’d hoped.  I let the early oat, field pea and forage radish get much more established in the beds before planting my main, heat loving crops.  The CC’s were around 18” tall at veggie planting time, when I cut back a small circle into which the tomatoes & peppers were transplanted. Then I let the rest of the CC grow for a month, before cutting it back.  In the past I’ve had great success cutting all of the CC close to the soil before planting the veggies, but this year’s approach seemed to slow down the early growth of the veggies. Whether this was specifically from the planting technique, the weather, a combination, or from some other variable is unclear. Maybe next year I will try using both approaches in a more controlled way. 

I do have a constant issue with invasive crab grass and gill-over-the-ground, so this year I decided to experiment with planting kale transplants through the cut grass, as I did with the CC’s.  Some folks talk about having a perennial ground cover to use as a CC, so I wondered if I could turn the sow’s ear into a silk purse. Sorry to say, most of the kale didn’t thrive.  So. guess I’m back to looking for a different solution to the invasive grass issue.  Any ideas?

Rodents were a huge challenge this year.  I know that healthy soil, no-till methods, and heavy mulch seem to increase the vole problem, but this year their chipmunk and squirrel kin joined them.  2017 was a heavy “mast year” in that there was an abundance of acorns, which resulted in an explosion of rodents.  I think the problem was exacerbated by my inadvertently supplementing their early summer food supply.  I had let a few early-planted beds of oats and field peas mature and their seeds ripen.  It was cute watching the chipmunks pull down the stalks to harvest the seeds, but not so cute later as they harvested MY food!

As tomato, peppers, and squash began to ripen they were often either eaten on the plant or carried off for later enjoyment! I had to harvest at the first signs of ripeness or miss out entirely.  And as we all know, nothing can compare to a vine ripened tomato. But a tomato on the table is better than no tomato at all! 

Other homestead thoughts

Northern hardy kiwi with kiwi jamWe had our first mild frost yesterday (Oct. 14), and now my thoughts turn to preparing for winter. There is a 20-degree night predicted later this week, so time to harvest the remainder of the tender vegetables and fruit. There are still tomatoes, peppers, squash, raspberries and kiwi to bring in and preserve. 

The rest of garden winter prep will be fairly easy, as all of those beds with cover crops will mulch themselves as their CC’s die back with the cold weather.  Vegetable plant tops will be composted after I cut them off at the soil level. I will be leaving the roots in the ground to nourish soil microorganisms over the winter.  And remember that fungal mycelium overwinter in roots, which they have previously penetrated. So save yourself the work of pulling plants and just leave them in the ground, where they are very beneficial!  Kale, collards and other brassicas will keep producing well into winter and hopefully again in the spring.

Elsewhere around the homestead there is plenty to keep us busy, like shutting off the unprotected water supply to the garden and pasture as well as to our outdoor shower; cleaning, repairing, and storing tools, wheelbarrows and carts; winterizing the brush mowers; adding “deep litter” to the winter chicken coop; a final mowing of the pasture for, among other things, making it smooth for cross country skiing; transferring the hens to their winter quarters after the pasture is snowbound; finishing the last of the sauerkraut and kim chee fermenting and making kiwi jam!  Luckily, our cordwood is all in and stacked, and we’ve even had a couple of fires to warm up the house and our toes.

Yesterday, I gave one of my Soil Health presentations to a group in far away Roxbury, CT.  During the talk I spoke of the necessity for a strong and diverse community of soil microbes and compared it to the community of gardeners, environmentalists, and activists that those in attendance represented.  The “it takes a village” sentiment is more important now than ever before. We, as growers, cannot only grow healthy soil and food while sequestering carbon, we can also sow seeds of community, of harmony, and of the joy of working together.  I’m not sure what the mid-term elections will bring, but I know that we have a strong and loving NOFA community in Mass and throughout the region.  Together we can sow and nurture those seeds of love, diversity and strength.

I hope your larder,  hearths and hearts are as full and warm as mine is going into this winter season.


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